Gelsomina (Masina) plays a trumpet tune to keep Zampano’s attention (Quinn) as he tries to sleep.
LA STRADA (1954)
Directed by Federico Fellini, Written by Federico Fellini, Tulio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano
Occasionally, you see the sort of keystone performance when watching a classic you’ve missed that illuminates something about the technique of actors you’ve known for years. Giuletta Masina, here playing a woman who believes herself to be an idiot, betrays her character’s true intelligence with a level of emotional nuance I cannot ascribe to earlier films. Many credit some of these nuances to Chaplin, but her interpretation must be credited in the discussion of actresses like Meryl Streep, Audrey Tatou, and Elisabeth Moss.
The film is named “La Strada,” for the road which its leads find themselves traveling without a heading. The circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) buys Masina’s Gelsomina from her mother on a postwar Italian coastline. He will refer to her as his wife and make her work in his performances, in which he demonstrates his great pectoral muscles and lung capacity; she will develop her own skills in comedy, music, and dance along the way.
There is a deep intellectual satisfaction to the kind of film Federico Fellini has created with La Strada. For the film is simultaneously a Neorealist Italian melodrama on poverty, a psychological study of a man who cannot handle his own violence and consumption, a morality tale questioning what one does when they feel desperate and taunted, and a feminist smackdown of the patriarchy. Its characters simultaneously exist as their own agents and reflections of the psychology of its stars, and the dreamlike nature of Fellini’s later 8 1/2 already exists in the symbology of its supporting cast.
Each thematic element comes to a head in the character of Il Mato, a would-be circus artist played by Richard Basehart. His character is really cruel, psychologically toying with anyone he happens to engage in conversation. He sets the two leads on opposite trajectories, and the falsehood of his nature is everyone’s downfall.
It is no surprise to say this is a great film; it exists as a hallmark of foreign cinema. Yet Ebert, who champions La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, may have set this film back by taking it too literally. We are told that Gelsomina has “turned out strange,” but he assumes this to mean she is in some way retarded. As I suggested at the beginning, I think Gelsomina is instead a very complex character, one who has little place in the world of poverty and vagabondism that its characters populate, but not a character who is truly as useless as she’d like to believe.
Perhaps my boldest claim? Zampano, who is credited as having a revelation at the end of the film, has almost no revelation at all. He, I believe, is still the same pitiful, misanthropic man he began the film portraying; he simply has taken steps too far one or two too many times, and now, staring at the carnage and abyss of his past, he is overwhelmed. This interpretation captures reality and my imagination.